Thursday, 19 May 2011
Thoughts on Disney calling time on Panini's UK originated Marvel material.
Well, now that Blogger appears to be back up and running properly again, and I've got a chance to put this up...
I signed off the last Blog Post I put out by mentioning the rather excellent Death's Head and Hulk story by Simon Furman and Simon Williams, from the UK newsagent comic Marvel Heroes. I hope you all went and grabbed yourself a copy. Firstly because it as really good. But secondly, rather disappointingly, because it may well be one of your last opportunities to enjoy such a story for quite some time.
Last week Bleeding Cool put up the bad news, that Disney (Who are Marvel Comics' Parent Company, these days) had decided to call time on allowing Panini to produce new strips featuring Marvel characters for their younger reader focussed Sensational Spider-man and Marvel Heroes comics. It is something which I can't say comes as an absolute surprise. Last year I blogged about the announcement that Disney were to take over the full handling of Marvel's International licensing and what that might mean for the future of Panini's UK market Marvel books. Nevertheless, it is rather disappointing news.
When Marvel UK was wound up and broken down Panini acquired many of its former parts. In particular the Doctor Who Magazine and reprint rights for Marvel's American titles in the UK. Since the mid 90s they have been reprinting Marvel books in monthly 'Collectors Editions' comprising three standard US issues for the price of roughly one US book, along with fortnightly licensed titles from the Ultimate Comics line and in more recent years new material in the form of Sensational Spider-man and Marvel Heroes. Sensational Spider-man was the first to do that. It was originally a tie-in to the 90s Fox TV cartoon of Spider-man (Remember that?). But when they ran out of material attached to that series the book continued, with new strips originated by artists and writers here in the UK. The first since the closure of Marvel UK.
And you know what? They've actually been pretty darn good too - bringing in characters such as Captain Britain, the Black Knight, Union Jack and Spitfire, even Death's Head into these new stories - introducing younger readers to characters beyond the rosters of The Avengers or X-Men for the first time. And while these are non-canon stories, aimed at a younger readership, the art is always strong and well coloured and the stories themselves are pitched spot on for their intended audience.
In short, Panini have been doing a good solid job.
And that's why the news that this arrangement has come to an end is such disappointing news.
Now I can see why Disney might have decided to make this move. At least on paper. They own Marvel Comics - including all its properties and characters - and paid a lot of money to acquire that.
They don't own Panini. In fact over in mainland Europe Disney and Panini are even direct publishing competitors.
Disney's point of view is probably that they are unhappy to have a competitor producing new comics featuring characters owned by Disney.
And on paper, that's understandable.
But not the whole picture.
Because here in the UK at least, that's not really true.
Here in the UK Panini are not the competition.
They are pretty much the totality of Marvel Comics' company's presence in the magazine racks of Newsagents and Supermarkets across the UK. They're also the company's presence in a lot of bookstores, where Panini's version of many Marvel trade paperback collections are on the shelves ahead of their US published counterpart, and often include much better introductions, back matter and the like.
In the UK Panini effectively ARE Marvel Comics. It's the Marvel name on the covers of their comics, and the Marvel name on the spines of their paperback collections.
While Disney might see this as asserting themselves over a competitor, the UK comics market and that of the larger countries in mainland Europe are very different. Here in Britain the Newsagent still remains the primary outlet for comics. US market books are only sold in specialist Comic Book and Collectibles stores, of which there are still not that many in the UK and Ireland. Through Panini, Disney get the Marvel name on Newsagents shelves. Right now, without them they don't.
If Marvel Heroes and Sensational Spider-man were to disappear from UK shelves, as a result of this decision, it wouldn't be a blow dealt to the competition by Disney. It would be much more like cutting off their nose to spite their face. Because in reality all that it would actually achieve is the removal of two Marvel titles from the racks - reduction of coverage for Marvel Comics in the UK's primary sales outlets.
Does that really do them any favours?
I actually wouldn't have thought so.
Now I know that I come from a very different age of comics (Arguably a golden age in some respects) when Marvel owned a UK office, and new content was not only allowed to be originated here but also allowed to intermingle with licensed properties too. I know that was a bit of an ideal age. I know that Panini are not Marvel UK.
But this news does sadden me to hear, nonetheless. It irritates the heck out of me, if I'm honest.
Firstly, because that Disney's decision to stop Panini producing new material of this kind means that another avenue for British comic creators to get regular paid work has been closed. And there really aren't many of those left in the UK comics industry. Aside from 2000 AD and CLiNT it's almost exclusively a US reprint market these days. That's how things have ended up, sadly. And while the borders for working in American comics have come down a lot in the past 20 years, it's another blow for comics in this Country.
But secondly it once again raises an issue which I've been wondering about quite a bit over the past couple of years. It gets brought up again and again at UK cons - where are the next generation of comics readers? I'm a 31 tear old male. Marvel's current output is very much aimed at my kind of demographic, an audience which can embrace adult themes and content. But in terms of all-ages material, Marvel comics really has stopped publishing that.
You know, one of my favourite books of the past year was an all-ages friendly Marvel Book. That was Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. It wasn't Marvel cannon, but it was well-written, had great art, and actually got me interested in Thor - a character I'd mostly written off in mainstream comics, because of his cod use of Ye Olde Englishe, and the frankly poor grasp of mythology which many writers using him seemed to have.
I got into reading that title through an issue in which Thor and The Warriors Three ended up going on a Pub Crawl, getting hopelessly lost, and barging into Captain Britain. Fighting/Bonding ensued. I loved that issue. And it got me back issue hunting.
This book got the right balance. Suitable for all ages, but not patronising or too derivative to put off older readers. It really was a back to basics approach to the character, which fitted in well with the Movie which is now in cinemas. And it gained some pretty solid critical acclaim, too.
So what happened to it?
Marvel cancelled it.
Because sales were not high enough. Sales gauged, one might argue, at estimations for a top selling adult book.
But here again is the problem I have with Marvel. Since the 1990s they have moved further and further away from producing books which are younger reader appropriate, let alone friendly. There have been some attempts at producing titles for that kind of age range, but more often than not these have primarily been adaptations of say the Fox TV cartoons of X-Men or Spider-man. They've never really been very good, or had much scope.
In a title like Thor: The Mighty Avenger the balance was so right. But Marvel weren't willing to back that. Because they don;t seem to see younger readers as an important area into which they want to expand their business. It seems for that they would rather put cartoons on the Disney Channel, and hope that kids who watch those move on to reading actual Marvel comics when they're older.
I personally think tat this approach is more than a little naive. Especially given that here in the UK the number of homes which even have access to Satellite TV (The means by which you can access the Disney Channel in the Britain and Ireland) is pretty small.
Comics and TV are two very different mediums. Expecting kids to become long-term regular comics readers automatically in their mid-teens (Which is pretty much the earliest age at which the bulk of Marvel's current output becomes suitable), when they have read no comics earlier in their life, is a bit of big ask.
Especially given the high cost of US comics.
To me it's just not realistic.
The success which Panini has had with it's own UK generated Marvel strips is proof, in my opinion, that there clearly is a market for Marvel comics for younger readers here. A market which Marvel US clearly cannot cater towards. They just don't make enough books for that target audience that could even be reprinted in their place.
I could understand if Disney's decision was motivated by some new interest in producing new all ages material themselves, and syndicating it across other Countries. But I see no evidence of this. It just seems more like stamping their authority down. In the meantime a good run of material comes to an end, and a gap on the shelves is created.
And as Rich Johnston points out in that Bleeding Cool article if Titan have any sense they'll put out an all-ages DC superhero title or two of their own, to fill that gap.
Most disappointing. Through Disney this definitely is Marvel's loss.